The final sermon preached by Rev. Katie Owen Aumann, Presbyterian Campus Minister at Duke
April 23, 2017
In the days of the early church, a few faithful disciples met in the catacombs. They started as small communities and brought their friends. As those of you who studied Acts this semester know, scripture says that
“all who believed were together and had all things in common…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 44).
They faced adversity from the culture around them and tried to live counter-culturally by sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
In short, the church met in the chapel basement, started as a couple people and expanded into a broader community. We ate meals together. We shared food points and t-shirts and class notes. We embraced grace when the world expected performance; we stood up when the marginalized were persecuted. And we gathered to hear God’s word proclaimed and to pray for one another. We may meet late on Sunday nights but PCM+ is as much the early church as it ever was.
In the days of the early church, Paul helped plant churches all over the Mediterranean, including a church at Philippi. He met faithful disciples, walked with them, taught them what he could, and gave thanks for their generosity. But Paul couldn’t stay at one church forever, and so he remained in connection with the churches he formed and planted through letters.
Paul gets a bad rap sometimes. Ever the rhetorician, sometimes his sermons were long and irksome. Sometimes he stuck to societal stereotypes and said some less than stellar things about women, LGBTQ folk, slaves…you get the idea. Sometimes he made a fool out of himself. But his letter to the Philippians is one of love, of encouragement, or hope, but above all, it’s a letter reminding the church in Phillipi that all of this…ALL OF THIS…is not about Paul and some club he created, but about Jesus the Christ, whose compassion, love, humility and grace are why we gather, why we strive to live the way we live, and why we do what we do.
It’s an emotional time for all of us. Whether you’re…
stressed out because of a paper due tomorrow, or
anxious because you’re still sorting out your summer plans, or
fretting the looming reality of graduation, or
sad about the transitions happening in this community, or
celebrating being done with a class or the beauty of spring, or
all of those things stirred up into one,
it’s an emotional time. And like the early church, we bring all of ourselves to the Christian community we have here.
And as Paul points out in his letter to the Philippians, we’re able to share all of this and support one another because: JESUS. That’s why.
Because Jesus walked alongside those who were stressed and anxious and said, “Come to me, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” (Matt 18:28)
Because Jesus sat at table with his disciples the night before he was betrayed, and tied a towel around his waist and washed their feet and then broke bread and shared the cup and said, “even if we are apart, do this in remembrance of me.”
Because Jesus rejoiced with those whose eyes were opened and who took up their mat and walked and who found new life and new joy and new hope and Jesus declared, “Your faith has made you well. Your faith has made you whole.”
Because Jesus appeared to the disciples on the road and over breakfast and gave the Spirit to us and told us to be Christ’s body—hands and feet in the world—showing the same love and mercy and grace and peace that Jesus did.
We are able to bring all of ourselves to this community, because JESUS.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a challenging time. Grief—like waves—will hit each of us. Part of why Paul wrote is because it’s hard to be apart from those you love. Whether you’re a senior who will grieve the absence of the predictable familiarity of the chapel basement and these people you’ve come to count on for hugs and laughter and more than a few pranks OR you’re an underclassman who is grieving the transition and change that is to come when you’ll see a new person sitting in the office and will have to come to build trust and learn the rhythms of a new pastor, grief will hit you.
And while Kubler-Ross nicely gives us five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, I’m here to tell you they don’t happen in a predictable order and they’ll sneak up and surprise you sometimes. So let grief be just that, grief. As Katie Becker so aptly preached, we know the power of Jesus because Jesus grieved when he lost his friend Lazarus. Even though he knew Lazarus would rise, Jesus wept. And Jesus went through all the stages of grief in his own journey to the cross:
He got ridiculously mad at the money changers in the temple,
which while worth getting mad, it wasn’t really about that; it was grief’s anger
He tried to talk God out of it (bargaining):
Father, if it’s possible take this cup.
He passed off the role of denial to Peter
who so quickly denied Jesus three times
He went off into the garden to pray and was deeply grieved (depression)
And he faced the cross with daring acceptance:
Father, not my will but thy will be done.
Jesus’ humanity showed us that all of the grief we experience is warranted and even holy. But Jesus also showed us that our grief is not the end of the story because Jesus did not stay on the cross—he rose again and walks with us still in the hugs, smiles, laughter, and prayers of the church at Phillipi and PCM.
But Paul’s letter to the Philippians also fits perfectly my feelings and words for you, my sisters and brothers. His letter is first and foremost a word of thanksgiving.
I’m thankful for:
- Your devotion that led to selling Krispy Kreme at the bus stop and walk up lines to raise money for hunger in Durham and getting up at the crack of to serve breakfast at Urban Ministries and several of you going weekly to Reality Ministries or to visit sweet Ruth Jane at the nursing home
- Your hilarious creativity that has resulted in my office being gift wrapped, PCM promo videos with a full script being made shot and published, memes—many of which I’ve never seen and probably should never–see being shared.
- Your commitment to this community—whether it’s showing up on a Sunday night of a busy week or stopping what you’re doing to bake or meet up for food or show up with special goodies to make a PCM friend having a rough week feel better
- Your honest vulnerability and your willingness to share the not-so-put-together parts of your life with me. Whether it was roommate issues or sexual assault or divorce or loss of a grandparent or stress about a class or a relationship break-up, I am thankful that you found a place on this campus where you could be real and you entrusted me with the raw, less polished parts of your self—because sometimes those are the most beautiful. There are weeks that the Kleenex and Mars Chocolate companies owe us a debt of gratitude for our contributions to their bottom line as well.
- Your laughter and your ability to make one another laugh, often at my expense.
- Your questions, the ones that kept me on my toes and made me think; the ones that led me to super nerdy theological conversations about predestination and providence and grace and eschatology; the ones that start with, “we’ve got a theological question for you:” that always made me gulp inside but smile on the outside; the ones that lead me to explain the entire history of the church and denominationalism on the back of a napkin at div café; the ones that helped me be a better Christian.
- And I’m thankful too for your willingness to ask questions without easy answers—or sometimes without any answers—because they help us grow deeper in faith.
- I’m thankful for so much more but I’m probably most thankful for the ways that you pray for one another. So, Lord in thanksgiving, hear our prayer.
As much as Paul’s letter is a word of thanksgiving, it is second and more importantly, a word of encouragement.And so on this final PCM of the school year and my final PCM with you in this place, I want to encourage you:
- Keep asking questions—the important ones, the real ones, the ones that will make the next campus ministers’ head spin.
- Pay attention when the grief hits you; if you find yourself weirdly angry or sad or avoiding the office just because it’s different, pay attention to the fact that it’s grief. Let it be grief. But don’t stay sad or stay away for too long and miss what God is still doing here.
- Give the next person a chance. Ask the hard theological questions and listen attentively. Let him or her know what kind of candy you like. Dare to share the vulnerable parts of yourself and receive the prayer and encouragement he or she will offer. And then, when you’re ready for acceptance, gift wrap their office. I’ve been told it takes about 13 roles of wrapping paper.
- Keep praying for one another—on the GroupMe, in person, in worship. To share in one another’s highs and lows, to know how you’re doing—emotionally, relationally, physically and spiritually, to ask “how are you?” and really mean it, and then to hold one another in prayer is the greatest gift you can offer each other.
- Keep being the community you’ve created:
- The one that welcomes ALL people as beloved children of God
- The one that shows up at vigils when those on the margins on this campus or in the world are threatened or marginalized
- The one that occupies the chapel basement as if it’s your own, even though apparently other people work here too
- The one obsessed with Montreat (Cole)—don’t worry, the house is already booked for the fall AND for college conference
- The one that is known on campus for its love, welcome, and care
- The one that practices GRACE ABOUNDING with each other
- The one that gathers and loves and laughs and prays together…
But above all else and perhaps most importantly, Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi is a word of hope and prayer. And so, like Paul, I want to leave you with a prayer from my all-time favorite prayer book by Ted Loder called Guerrillas of Grace, so let us pray:
O God of fire and freedom,
deliver me from my bondage
to what can be counted
and go with me in a new exodus
toward what counts,
but can only be measured
in bread shared
and swords become plowshares;
in bodies healed
and minds liberated;
in songs sung
and justice done;
in laughter in the night
and joy in the morning;
in love through all seasons
and great gladness of heart;
in all people coming together
and a kingdom coming in glory;
in your name being praised
and my becoming an alleluia,
[because JESUS.] Amen.